Sunday, 21 December 2014


The winter solstice. Today the sun reaches its southern most points, and begins its long journey back to its summer strength. The new year of ancient cultures.
In poetic literature, as exemplified by Robert Graves, this is represented by the replacement of the Oak King by the Holly King. The oak is the last tree to lose its leaves in winter, and now its reign is over and the evergreen holly, symbol of rebirth and eternal life, rules.
This is also seen in myth as the slaying of the wren by the new year robin. Until recent times, wrens were hunted on St Stephen's Day, 26th December, in a reenactment of this.
Both of these examples represent the Year King or Dying and Rising God , who is born, lives, dies and is reborn, representing all life which flourishes and withers in an annual cycle. The life of the God is mirrored by that of the sun, being born at the winter solstice , thriving for a year before dying and then being reborn the following year. The parallels with the Christmas story are obvious.
The king is dead. Long live the king
Happy solstice everyone.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Down the Chimney

This is the first of my seasonal posts relating to the Christmas / Yule / Solstice period.

In three weeks' time thousands of children across the world will be waiting for Father Christmas or Santa Claus to pop down their chimney with a large sack of presents for them. Santa is said to have originated from St Nicholas, a 4th century saint who left gifts for the poor out of kindness and charity. But to find his definitive origins, we must go much further back than that.

Santa famously wears red and white, has flying reindeer and enters houses via the chimney. These strange quirks offer clues as to his true roots, in a spiritual shamanic culture thousands of years old.

The red and white-spotted mushroom, Fly Agaric or Amanita muscaria, has been used since ancient times to induce shamanic experiences, chemicals in the mushroom having psychoactive properties. Many traditional cultures have their particular sacred plant which allows them access to the spirit worlds, and Fly Agaric fills this role in Northern and Central Europe. It is always the mushroom which fairies are depicted with in art – for this very reason.

It grows only under spruce and pine trees: evergreens associated with the rebirth of life after winter and the trees we adorn our houses with at Christmas. And our favourite Christmas hero always wears the colours of this mushroom.

The forests of Northern Europe where Fly Agaric is most commonly found, for example Lapland where Santa lives, are also the habitat of reindeer herds. You see the link there? The reindeer, herded by the people who revere the properties of the mushroom, also eat the mushrooms, so presumably experience the same spirit-flight as their human herdspeople. Hence the flying reindeer.

And regarding the chimney: houses in the North, where heavy snowfalls can all but bury them, often have an opening in the roof to allow access in winter. But this is not the whole story. In Europe, the chimney is believed in superstition to be the point of access for all supernatural entities. If some being was successfully warded off, it would invariably escape by hurtling up the chimney. Often charms or amulets were buried under the hearth to prevent access. Witch bottles – bottles filled with thorns, urine and nails – were commonly placed under hearthstones in the Middle Ages as a means of protection.

Every story is a celebration of an older story. Remember that this festive season.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Remember Remember The Fifth of November

Remember, Remember, The Fifth of November

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

A night of fireworks, bonfires, burning guys and burnt sausages. Guy Fawkes' Night is a quintessentially English celebration which has spread to her colonies across the world.

On 5th November 1605, in protest against England's persecution of the Catholic faith, thirteen men plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London, hopefully killing the King - the newly-crowned James I - and the members of parliament who opposed the open practice of Catholicism.

The plot was foiled at the last minute. One of the men, Guy Fawkes, caught in the cellars with several barrels of gunpowder, was tortured and executed. The other conspirators were also rounded up and killed.

That night, in celebration of the King's deliverance, bonfires were lit across the country. The tradition has held over the last 400 years, and still we light bonfires and  burn an effigy of a man known as a 'guy.'

Although a relatively recent festival, the reason for its continued popularity through the years is thought to be linked to the festival of Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival held on 31st October. This was a fire festival marking the coming of winter, when animals were slaughtered and feasts held.

Around the time of James I, the survivals of the old Pagan celebrations were being forcefully stamped out. It was a very dangerous time to be accused of practising any religion other than the denomination of Christianity favoured by the current monarch.

So Samhain, still stubbornly celebrated by many country folk, simply moved forward a few days, under the guise of enthusiastically and patriotically celebrating the long reign of the king.

For more about Samhain, check out this post:

Friday, 31 October 2014

Beware the Shadows Tonight

Samhain, the 31st of October, now Halloween, is the Celtic cross-quarter day lying midway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

Samhain has always been one of the most sinister dates of the calendar. It marked the final passing of summer and the arrival of the trials of winter: blizzards, famine, deathly cold. It was the time when the Earth Goddess changes from her Mother aspect to her more feared Crone aspect. Many – man and beast – would not survive to see the next spring.

Samhain had two aspects. It was the time when livestock – those old and weak and unlikely to survive the winter hardships – were slaughtered, and the meat stored to feed the community through the coming months. And secondly, after the sun was set, when darkness crept across the land, the shadows began to stir. Samhain night was a night when the veils between worlds grew thin. It was a night when creatures from the otherworld could cross to our world, a night when the faerie walked the lonely countryside, and a night when, if great care was not taken, a man could find himself transported to another realm of existence, never to find his way home. Samhain was not a night to wander.

The night wanderers were unwelcome. They drained the milk from cows' udders, terrorised animals so they broke their confines and bolted, curdled milk and stole food. To repel their attentions,  wards were placed around houses and settlements to frighten them away. This is the origin of the custom of carved pumpkins and the other pomp which comes with Halloween.

It is not just the Celts who linked this date with the nearing of other worlds. The 1st November is All Souls' Day in Catholic tradition, the day when the dead are remembered. In Mexico the 2nd of November is the Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos,  the day when the dead return to earth. Ancestors are remembered and offerings made, both from respect and fear of vengeance if the spirits find themselves neglected. 

So remember, if you see something moving in the lonely shadows, the sense of an insubstantial being flitting unseen behind you, don't look back, and walk just that little bit faster.

Happy Samhain everyone.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Raven

The raven or crow is woven into superstition, folklore and myth, much more than any other bird. It has always been closely linked with death: a portent of disaster regarded with superstitious dread. This is because of its colour - associated with death – and also its habit of eating carrion and scavenging on battlefields. For example in Celtic culture, Morrigan, the dread Goddess of war and death, often took the form of a crow, and to see her on the eve of a battle foretold one's certain death.

But the associations of this bird are not all negative. In a time when death was not considered the end, merely a transit from one existence to another, often before rebirth into this world, the raven or crow was linked to divine wisdom. What other bird has such an intimate understanding of the machinations of life and death, the two fundamental factors of existence?

Many great folk-heroes were linked to the raven on account of this. Bran the Blessed was a hero-king of Celtic tradition, and his head was said to be buried under what is now the Tower of London, long a sacred spot, as a safeguard against foreign invasion. Bran, in modern Welsh, still means 'crow' or 'raven.' King Arthur was also linked to the raven. A Cornish superstition forbids harming a raven on account that it may be Arthur. This is perhaps linked to the common superstition that to harm a raven is unlucky.

And further afield Odin, chief of the Norse Gods, had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, meaning 'thought' and 'memory,' who told him everything that was happening in the nine worlds.

The crow was also considered, along with other birds including the swan and goose, to carry the souls of the recently deceased to the next world.

The raven is a symbol of the British soul. Ravens living at the Tower of London are carefully protected, due to a legend dating back to the seventeenth century that if the ravens leave, the kingdom will fall. During the Blitz in 1940, raven numbers were reduced to just one. And remember, this is where the raven-hero Bran's head was buried.

I also have to mention the film The Crow, starring Brandon Lee - another name deriving from 'crow.' This film is based on the surmise that a crow carries the soul to the land of the dead, but if that death was the result of a great wrong, the crow can bring the soul back to put the wrong things right. A strange coincidence: Brandon was tragically killed during the filming process. There is certainly more to this film than at first meets the eye.

And there is more to this bird than meets the eye.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Happy Harvest Home

The first of August is the festival of Lammas, a survival of the Celtic festival of Lughnasadh, the mid point between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. It marks the height of the harvest, the culmination of the yearly cycle for both man and all the natural world.

Lughnasadh is the feast of Lugh, the Celtic version of the Year God or Dying-and-Rising God, the deification of all life which rises and falls in eternal flux. Lughnasadh is the time of his death, the time when plants and all other life dies back in order for their seeds to set, ready for the next cycle to begin: Lugh must die in order to be reborn.

It is linked to a tradition dating far back into English history: that of the Corn Spirit. This is the life force of the crop which  is gradually condensed as harvest progresses. The last sheaf to be reaped, now containing the entirety of the Corn Spirit, was always preserved, never threshed. It was scattered back onto the field in spring, symbolically returning the spirit to the land and opening the way for the God's rebirth. Interestingly, an almost identical custom was followed by the peasants of South Russia, known as 'pleating the beard of Veles,' Veles being the local name for this ancient and universal God.

The Corn Spirit or Dying-and-Rising God appears again as John Barleycorn, the subject of a traditional song which sums up the meaning of Lammas entirely.

There were three men came from the east
Their fortunes there to find
These three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn should die

They buried him in the earth so deep
With clods upon his head
And these three men they did conclude
That Barleycorn was dead

There he lay sleeping beneath the ground
Until rain from the sky did fall
And then John Barleycorn sprung a green leaf
And proved liars of them all